Dear Sisters and Brothers,
The Sermon on the Mount concludes with an additional warning about false prophets and then a very well-known parable (which we will get to tomorrow). Again, we don’t expect that Jesus taught the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount just once, but they are things that he repeated as he went from village to village for many months. We are told that Jesus preached in many places, so we assume that his message changed little from place to place. You will find variations on some of these same teachings in the sixth chapter of Luke which is often called, “the Sermon on the Plain.”
Many faithful and aspiring Christians are worried by the following verses of Jesus, but I don’t believe they should be. The people who should be concerned with these verses may not be alarmed by them at all… because they think that the Gospel is fake and that Jesus is merely a product that they are trying to sell:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
The passage speaks of extreme hypocrites who make up prophesies in the name of Jesus , perform exorcisms, and produce miracles to prove their power. These people are not merely insincere, they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, using the Gospel message to gain followers and to extort money. They are false prophets, false shepherds, false preachers, false teachers, and false saints. There have been no shortage of them through church history.
The chief problem they pose is that they can be very hard for good people to discern from true leaders. There is an old saying that ”you can’t cheat an honest man,” but you can misguide innocents. You can teach children lessons of hatred, bigotry, and an overwhelming fear of God that never mentions love. Whether in medieval Cathedrals, Protestant churches, tent meetings, radio and television broadcasts, or on the internet, there have always been false prophets that plague us and often divide us.
In any century since Jesus, it is easy to imagine a man who knows how to use his lack of conscience and an extra dose of salesmanship into a profitable business. Many such men go into useful business, but many will go after the biggest money, which is to be found in the extremes of vice, politics, and religion. It’s no wonder that people deal in illegal drugs, because the profits surpass the danger. But if a person wishes to sell a product that won’t land them in jail, they often choose religion or politics. Religion and politics also fuel their desire for praise.
Some people see religion as a waste of people’s time. Even worse, some people see churches as organizations to pacify and mollify people into submission while draining them of their money. In 1843, Karl Marx famously said, “Religion is the opiate of the people;” which means that religion is a vice that keeps people numb and controllable. From this point of view, the main value of religion is to maintain control of nations. So, religions like Christianity are seen as a scam or a cheat.
People can see things this way because many false prophets have risen to places of prominence, and their version of religion is a cheat. There are false prophets who wanted fame and money and so they sold the Gospel as if it was heroin. In doing so, they change the Gospel away from Jesus. And they make Jesus unrecognizable.
Before this text, Jesus had spoken of knowing trees by their fruit. The easiest way to recognize false prophets is that they do everything to maximize their authority and their profits (no pun intended, really). It is easier to move people with hatred and fear than it is to move them with love. Fear opens wallets a lot quicker than appeals to generosity. Hatred will get you bigger donations than appeals of friendship. A really talented “fire and brimstone preacher” will fill pews because people are afraid of God’s anger for missing church.
For those many churches of many denominations that yearn to stay true to the teachings of Christ, we are left with the fallout of the destructiveness of false prophets. Many people won’t come to church because they were misled in the past. After realizing that their former church was a cheat, they expect all congregations to be in it for the money.
The truth about real churches is that we are not enclaves of righteousness, but we are conglomerations and families of sinners who want to be righteous. Instead of identifying ourselves by whom we hate, we attempt to love everyone and pray for our enemies. We are led by fallible human beings that sin like the rest of us, but who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
A good Christian writer, Mike Yaconelli, once wrote “The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws.”
On the other hand, the most famous book about a false prophet was written by a Minnesotan named Sinclair Lewis. The satirical novel was called “Elmer Gantry” which was made into a movie in 1960. In the book a disillusioned follower sends Gantry thirty silver dimes to represent the thirty pieces of silver that Judas took for betraying Jesus. If the preacher actually understood the Bible, he would have been insulted. ““Elmer Gantry never knew who set him thirty dimes, wrapped in a tract about holiness, nor why. But he found the sentiments in the tract useful in his sermon, and the thirty dimes he spent for lovely photographs of burlesque ladies.” The problem isn’t that Elmer Gantry is a sinner. The problem is that he is knowingly and uncaringly polluting the world with false statements about Jesus. Unfortunately, if he understood Judas, I think Gantry would sympathize with him.
In the text from Matthew seven, Jesus says “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” What is the will of God? The answers are in the previous verses: Love God and love neighbor, be merciful, and hopeful. Love, mercy, and hope are not merely feelings but motivators. As a healthy fruit tree can’t stop itself from producing good fruit, a life of love, mercy, and hope produces good works. And everything is driven by faith that is a gift of God.
People suffer from the work of false prophets. Some people are led into fear and hatred, while others are alienated from religion and God. Since false prophets are our enemies, we should pray for them. We should pray for true miracles of conscience, repentance, and salvation.
Questions to Ponder: Have you ever realized that you were misled by a book, broadcast, or teachings of a false prophet? Are there any people you would feel right to hate?